Henningsen: Two anniversaries

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(HOST) This week marks two important anniversaries – one well known and one that teacher, historian and commentator Vic Henningsen says ought to be known better.

(HENNINGSEN) In the early hours of  September 1st, 1939, German forces poured into Poland in what the world learned to call a blitzkrieg. Within days England and France mobilized to honor treaty obligations to Poland. The bloodiest war in human history had begun.

Many feared a second world war; some expected it.  After the first, when the 1919 Treaty of Versailles imposed a harsh peace on Germany, a well-placed observer remarked:  "This isn’t a peace treaty.  It’s an armistice for twenty years."  Events proved him right almost to the day.

Worldwide depression in the 1930’s sharpened lingering antagonisms, leading nations to favor isolationism over internationalism and fueling the rise of aggressive militarism in Japan, Italy, and Germany.  Fearful of a return to the massive bloodletting of World War I, Britain and France ignored Japanese expansion into China, failed to oppose Italian aggression in Africa, and kowtowed to Hitler’s territorial demands in eastern Europe in a policy known as "appeasement".  In 1938, when Britain and France sold out Czechoslovakia to Germany, Winston Churchill and others denounced such willful blindness to Hitler’s true motives, arguing correctly that appeasement would soon land Europe in war.  When war did come, many agreed with poet W.H. Auden that it was the natural conclusion of "a low dishonest decade."

Only two days before the war began, a little-known general was appointed to the position of United States Army Chief of Staff.  George Catlett Marshall is largely forgotten today, but if there’s an unsung hero in America’s World War II experience, he’s it.   To the extent that the U.S. was at all militarily prepared for war at the time of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, it was because Marshall persuaded Congress to institute the nation’s first peacetime draft, in 1940, and, a year later, to extend it – a measure that passed by just one vote. Although he dreamed of battlefield command, Marshall’s gifts lay elsewhere. Victory depended on harnessing the nation’s industrial capacity to wage total war, which Marshall’s logistical genius helped happen. He promoted obscure officers he believed could lead the nation to victory – one of them was Dwight Eisenhower.  And he skillfully handled the challenge of managing both inter-service rivalries and America’s complicated military alliance with Britain and Russia. Marshall became a principal organizer of Allied victory – among Americans, second only to Franklin Roosevelt.  After the war, serving as  Secretary of State, he argued strenuously for massive aid to rebuild the shattered nations of Europe in what came to be called the Marshall Plan.  The organizer of victory thus became the guarantor of the peace.

It may seem odd that the outbreak of World War II occurred forty-eight hours after the emergence of a man who would do so much to win it for the Allies, but history’s full of such coincidences. Though never obvious, reasons for hope exist even in moments of darkest despair.

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